The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 19-13 on Sunday—a result that’s mildly surprising but not particularly shocking. For one thing, the Steelers were 5-1 against the Chiefs in their past five meetings, including an 18-16 victory in Kansas City in the playoffs last season. More tellingly, though, is the fact that Pittsburgh has a frustratingly innate tendency to “play down” to lesser competition one week and then string together a championship-caliber performance against a fellow contender the following week.
In other words, we kind of expected this.
What we did not expect, I think, was the performance by Pittsburgh’s secondary. Ranked first in the league by virtue of playing five games against a talentless contingent of backups (and Joe Flacco), the group of Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, William Gay, Sean Davis, Artie Burns and Mike Mitchell held Kansas City’s 7th-ranked passing attack to fewer than 250 yards and only a single touchdown (Davis, I should add, literally stole a touchdown from Demetrius Harris, which was a very significant play in retrospect).
The secondary isn’t a finished product—the touchdown, after all, was a 57-yard strike that resulted from Burns’ blown coverage and three missed tackles—but Sunday’s performance confirmed this unit is more than merely the product of a weak schedule. Pittsburgh won’t see many duos more imposing than Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, and the secondary held the tandem to 71 combined yards. Generally, if you can completely mitigate the impact of the opposing team’s two best players, you can survive the occasional broken play.
After six solid outings, it’s time to accept that Pittsburgh’s secondary is actually maybe pretty good. Let’s check in with some other notable performers:
The front seven: Stock up
The Steelers entered Sunday’s game in possession of one of the NFL’s poorest run-defenses, whereas the Chiefs brought a top-tier rushing attack to the party. Nevertheless, the Steelers held Kansas City to only 28 yards on the ground, including 21 for league-leading rusher Kareem Hunt, who at age 22 is already the greatest running back in NFL history.
This is an encouraging sign moving forward. It proves that the Steelers have the capacity to inhibit potent rushing attacks, which could come in handy down the road should the Steelers and Chiefs meet again in the AFC Playoffs.
A similarly positive sign is the fact that a two-month layoff has done little to ebb James Harrison’s superhuman capabilities. Harrison registered what might have been a game-saving sack on Kansas City’s penultimate play, while routinely inundating Smith’s personal space and Eric Fisher’s dreams on Kansas City’s other 50 or so plays. Furthermore, Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward, 580 combined pounds of beefy intrusiveness, were characteristically disruptive. Also, Vince Williams, who sacked Smith twice, now has four sacks for the season. The number of NFL inside linebackers who have more sacks than Vince Williams is zero.
Mike Mitchell: Stock down
For the second week in a row, Mitchell was very on-brand. He delivered a needless headshot to Charcandrick West in the second quarter, knocking West out of the remainder of Sunday’s game and perhaps for even longer. Later, after failing to sack Smith despite having an uncontested tackling lane, Mitchell fell toward Smith’s knees, drawing a roughing-the-passer penalty and tacking additional yardage onto a 37-yard run.
See for yourself. This is either one of the dirtiest football hits you will ever see...
That's about as dirty as it gets, Mike Mitchell. pic.twitter.com/piPXole7hS— Dan Hanzus (@DanHanzus) October 15, 2017
...or (and I’m saying this as a disciple of the Mike Mitchell is a Dirty Player Club), it’s reasonable to ascertain that Mitchell was pushed into Smith by Anthony Chickillo. Watch the above clip again and watch Chickillo’s right arm; it appears to propel Mitchell forward and, ultimately, downward.
Regardless, this play certainly didn’t help Mitchell’s brand. As a reminder, the Steelers will host the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 7, so keep this particular hit in mind before you fire off any blazing hot Vontaze Burfict takes.
The Gruesome Twosome: Stock up
Le’Veon Bell rushed for 179 yards and a touchdown, becoming the league’s third-leading rusher in the process. So all the narratives concerning his “slow start” can probably be quashed. Much like the Baltimore game, Todd Haley called Bell’s number early and often, enabling the Steelers to control the clock for essentially the entire first half.
Antonio Brown, meanwhile, accomplished this:
Brown is currently on pace for 128 catches and 1,867 receiving yards. Remarkably, both figures are within reach.
Martavis Bryant: Stock down
Ian Rapoport from the NFL Network is reporting that Martavis Bryant has asked to be traded, which is hilarious for two reasons. First, if memory serves, Rapoport was the one who reported that a Ben Roethlisberger trade was imminent following Roethlisberger’s second sexual misconduct allegation. Now, it should be noted that Rapoport is one of the most plugged-in dudes in the league, and his reporting is usually very accurate—but that journalistic snafu all those years ago still is apparently enough to call every subsequent report into question. Which is hilarious.
The second reason Bryant’s reported trade request is hilarious is because said request indicates that Bryant believes he has real leverage. Bryant, who has already lost 20 games to suspension, is under contract through the 2018 season. Also, through six games this season, Bryant has 17 receptions (ranked 88th in the NFL) for 231 yards (ranked 64th). So what is there about this guy that screams “hot commodity?” Noting that Bryant is a “rare physical specimen” is absolutely a correct statement, he’s also inconsistent and somewhat one-dimensional. Given his lack of production this season and that he’s one slip-up away from a potential lifetime ban, it seems unlikely that Kevin Colbert would get a good return even if he does decide to ship Bryant elsewhere.
(Of course, this is all a moot point now since Bryant has refuted this report. But still.)
Trade rumors aside, Bryant has been mostly anonymous as Pittsburgh’s no. 2 receiver, which is attributable to a number of things. One of these things is the Steelers’ confounding and byzantine refusal to utilize Bryant in the red-zone (Bryant has been targeted only thrice in 20 red-zone trips for the Steelers). This lack of usage is perhaps the reason why the Steelers currently boast a 50-percent red-zone touchdown percentage, which puts them on a par with the likes of winless San Francisco and Cleveland. Notable too is the glaring lack of continuity between Bryant and Roethlisberger in the deep passing game, though a season-long absence for Bryant certainly hasn’t helped this cause. Juju Smith-Schuster has emerged as a viable and reliable secondary receiver. Bell remains a target hog in the passing game.
All things considered—and it feels like we’ve been saying this for awhile—Bryant is too talented to not break through eventually.
David DeCastro: Stock up
Last week, someone on this very website commented that the Steelers should trade DeCastro, which, truthfully, is standard yinzer fare. DeCastro is 27, a two-time Pro Bowler and among the best pulling guards in the NFL. Without DeCastro, the counter-run doesn’t work, and the Steelers don’t amass 194 rushing yards against the best team in the AFC.
Fun: Stock down
Bell drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for shadowboxing the goalpost because the NFL, despite loosening its reins on excessive celebration protocol, continues to hate fun. I don’t want to sound like a homer, but isn’t it kind of ridiculous to flag a guy due to a technicality while other teams are playing duck-duck-goose and pantomiming a baseball game? Sad!
Game Ball: Antonio Brown
Antonio Brown scored on this play pic.twitter.com/kUJFhiNr3e— 360°FantasyFootball (@360FFB) October 15, 2017
Ben Roethlisberger Retirement Index
Postgame, Ben said this:
Ben about bounce back: "This ol' cowboy got a little something left in him."— Gerry Dulac (@gerrydulac) October 16, 2017
Hmm. You hate to downplay contributions by the starting quarterback in a win, but take a quick gander back at the photograph under the “Game Ball” section. That sure looks like a ball that probably should’ve been intercepted. Remember, Ben attempted this pass on 3rd-and-2 with 3:32 seconds remaining in a 12-10 game. It was nothing short of wizardry that this play resulted in a catch, let alone a game-sealing touchdown.
Even so, it was a touchdown and the Steelers did win because of it. If that play is what drags Ben kicking and screaming back to reality, then so be it. The “ol’ cowboy” comparison is a bit concerning since that’s the kind of thing I picture a grizzled Josh Brolin saying before the final gunfight in a John Wesley Hardin biopic. But at least Ben’s planning on sticking it out through 2017. Let’s set the BBR Index at a hard 7 for this week.